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Your Brain on Threat: How Expectations and Demands Can Booby-Trap Your Relationship

Let’s say your brain has two modes: Threat Mode, and Friendly (or normal) Mode (I’m oversimplifying here, but actually, it’s not that far off). Let’s call them TM and FM for short.


In FM, you can plan, organize, maintain perspective, problem-solve creatively, and express yourself in ways that don’t alienate other people. TM is what happens when you’re stressed or emotionally threatened in some way. This could range from mild stress (“Darn, we’re out of milk”), to moderate/severe chronic stress (such as new-baby-and-no-sleep), to momentary stress of the sort that produces road-rage. And road-rage is indeed a result of Threat Mode!

TM is what happens when you’re triggered, and you can get triggered at all kinds of levels, but essentially your brain is preparing for some degree of fight/flight.  As you may have read elsewhere, your brain actually switches blood flow from the planning, organizing, moderating frontal circuits to the threat-detection-and-action emotional circuits. The results have been described in terms of temporary loss of IQ points, tunnel-vision, and reactivity, to name a few of the characteristics of TM. Complicating things, lots of background factors—often out of awareness—can feed into how much Threat Mode dominates one’s experience, and it also can snowball in sneaky ways.

What might be more surprising is how something that can seem neutral or harmless can become so threatening when you or your partner is in TM. Take, for example, demands! In relationship terms, demand is similar to command in that it implies a need for compliance without appeal on the part of the demandee. Demands and commands have an absolute quality that may be expressed in a form resembling “Do X,” or “You must X” or “Don’t ever X.”

Sometimes demands are disguised as requests. According to Marshall Rosenberg, the litmus test for a demand is that that non-compliance on the part of the respondent is met with criticism, punishment or denial. For example:

Partner A: “Will you please take out the trash?”

Partner B: “I don’t want to do it now but I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Partner A, sarcastically, “Well, you’re a big help,” or angrily “You never do anything I ask!,” or the like.

Since Partner A was apparently unwilling to accept anything but a yes, that was not really a request—it was a demand posing as a request.

When we are in Threat Mode we are alert for anything that might threaten our well-being, especially people who don’t have our interests in mind, and even more so, loved ones who don’t appear to have our interests in mind (because, of course, these are the people who should have our interests in mind the most!). Unilateral gestures, communications or actions on the part of a partner can be signals to the effect that the other doesn’t matter, and that is precisely the problem with demands. In not allowing for appeal or choice by the demandee, they are unilateral communications, suggesting that the demandee’s needs or wishes are not up for consideration. As such they become threats. Of course, not all demands will be triggers, but to the degree that one or both partners are in Threat Mode and the demand is for something that both partners are not in alignment on, there will be trouble.

Perhaps more subtle still is the idea of expectations. In the context of a more trusting relationship, it can be helpful and even desirable for partners to talk about expectations in the sense of visions and fantasies about various-sized projects, from loading the dishwasher to lifetime ambitions. These conversations are part of working out values together and figuring out what shared parts to enjoy together and how to manage differences. The problem comes in when expectations take on a quality of standards to be met, which often coincides with an atmosphere in which trust has been eroded. In this kind of scenario, the expectations take on a tone of “I expect X,” which again merges into demand territory and becomes a threat of non-mutuality. Part of the reason that expectations and demands go hand-in-hand with deteriorating trust is that they are an attempt to restore dependability through the creation of rules. Unfortunately, however, this approach typically has the opposite effect, degrading trust further by adding more threat to the relationship ecosystem (just one of the snowballing effects referenced earlier).

The cure is to restore mutuality by working back in the direction of reciprocal conversation rather than unilateral demands or expectations. In its simplest form, this can be along the lines of each partner describing—in relation to the topic at hand–what is important to them about the topic, and why it is meaningful to him or her. This should be at a time of calm reflection with each other, i.e., when in Friendly Mode, not Threat Mode. There are lots of other tweaks for ensuring a productive conversation, such as keeping to one topic at a time, learning to really listen to each other, and what to do if things go off track, but those are for another article. If the threat level in your relationship is so high (or the trust level so low) that it is hard to have any kind of significant conversation successfully, it would probably be best to seek couples therapy to help you get to a better place.  But we can all can use more awareness of how we are using expectations and demands, so start noticing how you use them today. (And that’s a command!)

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Robert Solley

Robert Solley

Robert Solley earned his Ph.D. in 1988 and has been licensed over 20 years. He specializes in couples therapy, has been an associate with the Couples Institute in Menlo Park for over five years, and has an active practice in Noe Valley in San Francisco. He is also part of the Psyched in San Francisco staff of therapists.

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